I made the trek across the pond alone to see Mandy Patinkin star in the new play Compulsion by Rinne Groff at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Lady Guinevere was supposed to join me for a girl’s weekend, but Arthur and Lancelot weren’t getting along, so she had to stay home to keep them from killing one another.
First, some background:
This play was co-produced by The Yale Repertory Theatre, The Public Theatre in New York, and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California and after its run at the Yale Repertory Theatre, will go on to be staged at both the Public Theatre and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. It was directed by Oskar Eustis and stars Hannah Cabell as Miss Mermin (a Doubleday Editor) and Mrs. Silver (Sid’s wife); Mandy Patinkin as Sid Silver; and Stephen Barker Turner as Mr. Thomas, Mr. Harris, Mr. Ferris (all Doubleday editors or lawyers) and Mr. Matzliach (an Israeli friend and producer). The puppeteers, yes there were puppets, were Emily DeCola, Liam Hurley and Eric Wright.
The play is a fictionalized account of the real journalist and novelist, Meyer Levin, who wrote a book entitled Compulsion about the Leopold and Loeb case. It was the first documentary or non-fiction novel, one in which Levin follows the facts of the case and but changes names and uses a fictional reporter as the narrator of the story. This style of writing was later emulated by Truman Capote, among others.
The play, however, is not about the Leopold and Loeb case. It is about Anne Frank. You see, Meyer Levin was one the first American journalists to become aware of the existences of Anne Frank’s diary. He was also one of the first to realize that the diary would be a huge literary and dramatic success. He wanted to be the one to write the stage play, but his play was rejected for the one that was ultimately brought to the stage with huge success (Tony awards, Pulitzer Prize, etc.). He battled for 30 years to have his version of the play performed. It became his Compulsion.
I had read a few reviews of the play before I saw it, some good, some not so good, but the New York Times liked it and Mandy’s performance, which was pretty amazing for them to like him (they usually don’t like him), so I had great expectations. I am happy to say the play lived up to them.
The play takes place between 1951 and 1981 and is located in New York City, Fire Island, New York, and Israel.
The play begins with Sid Silver, Mandy’s character, sitting at a table reading a manuscript. On the other side of the stage is a puppet in Anne Frank’s likeness who is writing in her diary. She is voiced in almost all instances by Hannah Cabell, except in a later dream sequence when she is voiced by Mandy, which I first thought was weird, but then it made sense. Some reviewers did not like or understand the puppets, but I liked them – they played Anne, and later on the characters in various versions of the plays adapted from Anne’s diary. I guess you could liken them to an aside, which in theatre language is where the character talks directly to the audience to give them commentary, information, background and backstory. When the puppets portrayed the characters in the play adapted from Anne’s book, Sid stands to the side and reads news clippings of various reviews of the play throughout the world.
From the very beginning, you see that Sid Silver doesn’t have the firmest grasp on reality. He is a very volatile personality and is so single-minded in his quest that he misunderstands, doesn’t listen carefully, is quick to fly off the handle, and concocts wild conspiracies against him. The playwright kept this volatility in mind when she planned that Mr. Thomas, Mr. Harris, Mr. Ferris, and Mr. Matzliach would be played by the same actor. There is a running joke throughout the play that when Sid meets or interacts with Mr. Thomas, Mr. Harris or Mr. Ferris, he mixes them up and thinks they are one another. This is a great release for the audience, because most of the play is very intense (is anyone surprised that Mandy selected an intense play? LOL), so it is good to have a little comic relief here and there.
Even though Sid Silver is somewhat of a buffoon and an ass, he is a sympathetic character who, according to the play, really did get shafted by Doubleday through their miscommunications (their many, “Oh, didn’t we tell you?” revelations), and their attempts to whitewash the “Jewishness” of the subject matter which Silver, and rightly so, thought was criminal. However, his obsession about the play cost him his relationship with Doubleday, his lawyers, his agent, the producers of the play, Otto Frank (Anne’s father) and nearly cost him his wife and family.
After many altercations, lawsuits and a suicide threat from his wife, he apparently settled his differences with all parties and the family moved to Israel in the mid-1960’s. I say “apparently” because we soon find out that behind his wife’s back, he has asked Mr. Matzliach, an Israeli producer, for his opinion of his version of the play. The next scene is the dream scene, in which Mrs. Silver and Anne (the puppet) talk. Anne, voiced by Mandy, tells Mrs. Silver that Sid was still obsessed by her and assures her that if they had a reading of the play in their home then he would be satisfied and his obsession stilled. It works because you realize that Sid is speaking through Anne in Mrs. Silver’s dream, trying to convince his wife that this will be enough. It wasn’t.
After the reading, he convinces Mr. Matzliach to produce the play, even though he did not have the legal rights to the material. After the play is staged by a production company affiliated with the Israeli Army (I know I don’t have that completely right, but without the script to refer to, what can I do?), to rave reviews, more outbursts and lawsuits ensue. There is one particularly hysterical conspiracy theory that Silver comes up with here. Lillian Hellman was the lover of one of the original producers, and Sid always thought that she had wanted to be the one to write the play, and he blamed her for getting him kicked off the project many times throughout the play. In this scene, he blames her for his agent not getting his letters about producing the play in Israel by making this connection: Lillian Hellman’s publisher had offices in the same building as his agent. So, Lillian must have snuck in after hours and broke into his agent’s office and stole his letters! So funny!
I really haven’t talked about the character of Miss Mermin, and since she is an essential character, especially at the end, I should do so. First, the Mr. Harris, Mr. Ferris and Mr. Thomas characters were all kind of bombastic characters who were the ones to give Sid bad news throughout the play. They were the foils who were fighting against Sid in one way or another. At the beginning of the play, Miss Mermin was a young, rookie editor at Doubleday, who was anxious to help Sid and see that he got treated fairly. Throughout the play, she tried to help him until he finally antagonized her enough that she kicked him to the curb. She had a rising career and a new husband, and wanted to be rid of the drama that was Sid.
In the penultimate scene, it is 1981 and Sid visits Miss Mermin at her apartment. There is a literary party going on and she says he can’t come in and that Lillian Hellman had left already. She gives him some grief about his latest letter to the Pulitzer committee asking them to take back the prize they awarded the Anne Frank play, 27 years ago! Sid suddenly takes her in his arms and kisses her, a really good, long kiss. She breaks away from the kiss, considers a moment and then asks him if he was dead, and we realize it is a dream scene. He says he must nearly be dead if he, a married man, is kissing a married woman who is not his wife. She said wasn’t married anymore and was Miss Mermin again. Sid takes her in his arms and tells her that he was really in Israel, surrounded by his loving family, breathing his last breath. Miss Mermin opens the door to her apartment and invites him in.
Once inside, it is apparent that Sid has died. He meets Anne and they talk about his love for her. She mentions how he hurt her father with all his accusations and lawsuits. He apologizes and she goes back to her table and chair and writes in her diary while Sid gazes at her adoringly.
It wasn’t all intense drama, though. Besides the running joke about Mr. Thomas, Mr. Harris and Mr. Ferris, interspersed here and there were domestic scenes with Sid and his wife. In one scene they are at a beach house and he is at his desk writing his draft of the play and she comes back from a party and is a little drunk. They exchange some witty sexual banter and canoodling that made me wish that I was the actress up on stage (sigh, fans self)! In another scene, after they are in Israel, they go off to bed to make love (offstage) and Sid shuffles/dances off the stage with a wicked little grin on his face.
The author of the play, Rinne Groff is a Yale alumnus. She said she has always identified with Anne Frank. She is Dutch, Jewish, and has relatives in Amsterdam who she has visited frequently and has been to the house where the Frank family hid during World War II.
I also read in an interview with Mandy that after he read the play, he really wanted to be a part of the production, saying that he thought it would be illegal if they staged the play without him!